This is a blog which primarily gives some attention to movies that I find were overlooked (for whatever reason) or are simply underrated. I also comment on other, mainly movie-related issues as well. I welcome any suggestions for films to be added to this distinguished list.

One word of warning: The films listed below contain spoilers, so caution during reading is required.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Lady Frankenstein (1971)

"But to create life? Should Man leave that to God?"
"Here on Earth, Man is God!"
-Charles Marshall and Baron Frankenstein.

Normally, I wouldn't say anything like this here, but as a new year has begun and, in a matter of days, a new Presidential administration will start, I just wanted to say that, while I was also disappointed with the results of November's election, I feel optimistic that all of us will be able to continue to enjoy life!

My first 2017 post this is film, which has certainly grown on me over the years. Produced by Roger Corman's New World Pictures, this is an interesting variation on Mary Shelley's classic story Frankenstein.

It more or less begins as the other film adaptations of the novel do, with Baron Frankenstein (Joseph Cotten) obtaining corpses for his work. Soon, though, we begin to see what makes this film unique. The movie's title character, the Baron's daughter Tania (Sara Bey), comes home as a graduate from medical school and is eager to follow in her father's footsteps.

At the same time, the Baron and his assistant Dr. Marshall (Paul Muller) set their eyes on the body of a recently executed criminal, even though Lynch (Herbert Fux), their hired grave robber, is already under suspicion by authorities.

But the Baron and Marshall's experiment proves successful. However, their creation (played by Peter Whiteman) quickly kills the Baron before leaving the castle. Marshall and Tania, who was watching the experiment secretly, report the murder to police Capt. Harris (Mickey Hargitay) but they say the perpetrator was a burglar.

As the monster terrorizes the countryside, killing (among others) Lynch and a couple while they are having sex in the woods, Tania then expresses her romantic feelings for Marshall. But, this proves to be a ruse in order to create her own creature by placing Marshall's brilliant mind into the strong body of their retarded servant Thomas (Marino Mase).

As with her father, Tania's attempts to recreate life prove successful and her new creation manages to kill her father's just as the townsfolk begin to destroy the castle. Again like her father, Tania meets her fate at the hands of her own creation when her creature chokes her as they make love while the castle burns down around them.

Corman's productions were often noted for their less-than-convincing production values (although Corman's Edgar Allan Poe series with Vincent Price would prove an exception), and this movie follows suit in some ways. The Baron's monster, for instance, looks somewhat ridiculous.

But this movie has a nice atmosphere to it and, like Shelley's novel, it nicely illustrates how one's obsession can bring about their downfall.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Agony Booth review: Jaws and Taxi Driver

My latest Agony Booth work looks at two classics from the 1970s that have more in common than you may think.
In a previous article, I noted that Jaws and Taxi Driver would make an ideal double feature.

The former, based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, is about a massive great white shark terrorizing an island community, while the latter is about the mental disintegration of a lonely insomniac. So on the one hand, these two movies, which were released within less than a year of each other, couldn’t be more different. But given that both were released in the middle of the American Film Renaissance of the 1970s, it can be argued that there’s a kinship of sorts between these two classics.

I first thought of this years ago when I read a book (for the life of me, I forget the name) which made comparisons of the films of different directors.

The book stated that in Jaws, Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody reveals that, despite his fear of water, he moved to the island of Amity to raise his kids in what he believed to be a safer environment than his native New York. The Big Apple is also the setting for Taxi Driver which, the author wrote, illustrated the reason why Brody went to Amity.

In addition, both Brody and Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle are guys who aren’t looking to become public heroes. Brody is simply focused on raising his family and maintaining law and order in Amity, where he’s the chief of police. Bickle is a Vietnam vet who becomes a taxi driver simply as a way of coping with his psychological scars, even after he’s rejected by a beautiful political campaign worker named Betsy (Cybill Shepherd). Although the fact that he takes her to see a porno probably doesn’t help matters.

But both protagonists are compelled to take action as their respective stories go on. Brody must take his aquaphobia head on when the shark that’s been terrorizing Amity strikes again, nearly killing one of his sons. Likewise, Bickle feels obligated to help guide teenager Iris (Jodie Foster) out of the life of prostitution she’s trapped in.

Both men also face obstacles along their new journeys. Brody and oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) have quite a time convincing Amity’s mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) to close the beaches, as doing so will drastically cut into the summer revenue Amity depends on to survive during the winter. But Brody eventually talks Vaughn into paying the huge fee that shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) has asked for in order to secure his boat and services towards stopping the shark. However, Quint turns out to have issues himself, which he basically explains to Brody and Hooper by revealing that he was one of the few survivors of the U.S.S. Indianapolis. That ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine toward the end of World War II, and nearly all the crewmen who survived the sinking were left in shark-infested waters for days before help finally arrived to save whoever was left. This mentality is what drives Quint to later burn out his ship’s engine, hence stranding the three of them in the middle of the ocean at the mercy of the shark. The beast manages to kill Quint and tear apart the shark cage Hooper is in before Brody blows it up by shooting an oxygen tank that’s in its mouth.

Bickle must contend with Sport (Harvey Keitel), Iris’s pimp. But while Brody is still able to keep his sanity in dealing with Quint, Bickle briefly loses his mind and attempts to murder presidential candidate Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris), whom Betsy is campaigning for. It’s only after this attempt ends in failure that Bickle goes to Sport’s hideout, where he proceeds to gun down him and others. Bickle is stopped from killing himself when he runs out of ammunition.

However, both ordeals produce the same result: the protagonists unexpectedly become heroes. The shark no longer terrorizes Amity (yes, I’m ignoring the Jaws sequels and I advise you to do the same), while Iris is returned to her family.

Jaws director Steven Spielberg and Taxi Driver director Martin Scorsese first met in the late 1960s as they were beginning to direct movies. By the mid-’70s, Spielberg had attained critical acclaim with Duel and The Sugarland Express, as had Scorsese with Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. But both Jaws and Taxi Driver would mark a turning point in their careers, and the making of both films proved difficult.

The production of Jaws was horrendous to say the least, mainly because of the mechanical shark not working properly as the salt water of the Atlantic Ocean (where the boat sequences were shot) kept damaging it. This caused the production to go over budget and over schedule, leading some to think it would flop when it reached cinemas.

During this time, however, some of Spielberg’s friends, including Scorsese, came by the set to give him moral support. These friends even suggested to Spielberg that the shark blow up in the film’s climax. This gave the movie a more exciting ending than the book, in which the shark drowns after being weighted down, and is one reason why this is one of only two movies that I believe are better than the book (for the record, the other is The Godfather).

Scorsese had trouble finding an actress to play Iris. Many young actresses (including Linda Blair and Mariel Hemingway) turned down the role because of the subject matter, before Foster (who previously worked with Scorsese in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) agreed to take the part. In addition, Scorsese also had to deal with the MPAA, which initially gave Taxi Driver the dreaded X rating for violence.

During post-production, Scorsese reportedly obtained the desired R rating by de-saturating the blood seen in the final shootout in order to make it less prominent. Spielberg also visited him and helped edit the last 10 minutes of the movie, as well as watched legendary composer Bernard Herrmann score what became his final movie (Scorsese tells a funny story about this on the special features section of the Vertigo DVD). Sadly, Herrmann died just one day after completing his work on the film.

The success of both of these films changed the course of American cinema. Jaws brought about the summer blockbuster phenomenon, while Taxi Driver influenced the world of independent films. Hence, without Jaws, we may not have had The Matrix (I’m ignoring those sequels, too), while without Taxi Driver, we may not have had Clerks (you know, the good Kevin Smith film).

These two films each received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Score. Infamously, both were locked out of the Best Director category. This illustrates how the success of these movies became a double-edged sword for their directors for a time.

Jaws began the association Spielberg ended up having with escapist entertainment (which later included Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park), while Taxi Driver prompted people to associate Scorsese with more gritty fare (such as Goodfellas and Casino). This is why eyebrows were raised when they were later directing different types of films such as The Color Purple and The Age of Innocence.

But the two directors’ willingness to branch out in this manner is a reason why both are revered as the legends they are now. Heck, as far as I’m concerned, Spielberg and Scorsese have been doing those “experimental movies” that their pal George Lucas has been wasting his breath for years saying he plans to do.

However, both Jaws and Taxi Driver brought about less-than-desirable ramifications, as well.

Morons who didn’t know any better took Jaws as a message that all sharks should be hunted to extinction. As a result, there have been instances of massive shark hunting which has impacted not just the ocean, but humanity as well. Sharks keep the ecosystem in check by, among other things, keeping the zooplankton population down. Without sharks, zooplankton can increase overwhelmingly, making it impossible for people to enjoy activities on the beach. In addition, sharks have exceptional immune systems, which allow them to consume the carcinogens thrown into the ocean without being harmed. Hence, they help keep the oceans clean.

This is another reason why I prefer Jaws as a movie over the book: it clearly states that the shark in the story is not an ordinary shark! To his credit, Benchley, who co-wrote the Jaws screenplay with Carl Gottlieb (who had a small part in the movie), dedicated the rest of his life to preserving sharks before his passing in 2006. He even wrote a non-fiction book about sharks entitled Shark Trouble.

One person who saw Taxi Driver was a disturbed individual named John Hinckley, Jr. His fascination with Foster in that movie led him to take a page from Bickle’s book (including sporting the character’s mohawk) by attempting to assassinate President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981.

Shockingly, Hinckley’s attempt came close to being more successful than Bickle’s. A policeman and a Secret Service agent were both hit, while Press Secretary James Brady was shot in the head. Reagan himself was shot in the chest, but happily would make a complete recovery. The other three victims survived as well, although Brady’s wound left him paralyzed, and his death in 2014 was ruled a homicide as the result of the shooting. Hinckley was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity. He was institutionalized until September 2016. At present, he lives with his mother in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Some may consider Jaws and Taxi Driver dubious achievements as movies, but there’s no denying the impact they, and by extension their respective directors, ended up having on both cinema and the world.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Agony Booth review: Double Features

My latest Agony Booth article goes into nice ideas for double features.
Double features are almost as old as cinema itself. Before TV came around, a movie would be preceded by an animated short, a live-action short, a newsreel, and then the main feature. During the Great Depression, cinemas began to give customers two movies for the price of one in order to attract more ticket buyers. These presentations initially began with a low-budget film (the B-movie) before an interlude and then the main feature. This allowed studios that specialized in making B-movies, such as Republic, to become successful.

The revenue this generated soon led to major studios making their own B-movie features. This practice continues to thrive today, only nowadays these movies usually go straight to video (or streaming). Thanks to the advent of home video and later the internet, people can now have double features of all kinds in their own homes. Here now (in no particular order) are 10 great double features you can have at home and why I find them ideal.

Star Wars (1977)/Halloween (1978): These two films respectively rewrote the books on science fiction and horror (for good and bad, according to some) as it didn’t take long for imitators of both movies to flood cinemas in the wake of their successes. As it turns out, the villains in these movies (Darth Vader and Michael Myers) also wear what would become awesome Halloween costumes. Even the musical scores for both movies have become iconic, and rightly so. In addition, the first sequels for each film (The Empire Strikes Back and Halloween II) can make an ideal double feature since they each brought family connections into the narrative, influencing the directions of their respective franchises (again, for good and bad, according to some fans).

Hang ‘Em High (1968)/Night of the Living Dead (1968): By the end of the 1960s, Italian studios were basically churning out westerns and zombie pictures like they were pizzas. While neither of these films were Italian productions, both capitalized on that craze. Hang ‘Em High, Clint Eastwood’s first American-made western after the three he did with Sergio Leone made him a film star, involves a rancher (Eastwood) who survives a lynching and becomes deputized before hunting down the men who tried to kill him. Night of the Living Dead, an inexpensive production made in Pittsburgh, centers on a group of people who become trapped in a deserted house as reanimated corpses begin engulfing the countryside. Both movies have a gritty, harsh tone, and the fact that both premiered just after the shocking murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy may have made both films cathartic, if you will, for viewers.

Jaws (1975)/Taxi Driver (1976): I actually plan to go into more detail about these two movies at a later time. Needless to say, however, Jaws, Steven Spielberg’s classic film of a shark terrorizing an island community, set the bar when it came to blockbusters, while Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese’s classic picture about a loner (Robert De Niro) who ends up committing terrifying acts, did the same for independent films. One could also say they ended up coloring the public’s perceptions of their respective directors.

High Noon (1952)/Rio Bravo (1959): Two classic westerns released during the genre’s heyday. The former, in which Gary Cooper ends up facing bad guys alone when nobody is willing to assist him, was viewed as a critique of McCarthyism for the manner in which Cooper does the honorable thing. The latter, in which John Wayne fights bad guys with loyal men at his side, was viewed as a counterpoint to that argument, as Wayne’s character doesn’t spend much of the movie asking for assistance. Wayne even called High Noon “un-American”, which is what led to him and director Howard Hawks making Bravo. Regardless of political views, today both movies are rightfully embraced as masterpieces.

The NeverEnding Story (1984)/Labyrinth (1986): Both of these films involve young people who must enter a world they know from a book in order to save lives. NeverEnding Story centers on a lonely boy (Barret Oliver) reading a fantasy book, and as he reaches the end, he realizes that he’s the only one who can save a not-so-fictional land from destruction. Labyrinth stars then-unknown Jennifer Connelly as a fantasy-loving teenager who just wants to live in her own fantasy world and regrets her wish that her infant brother be taken away by the Goblin King (the late, great David Bowie), a character from the play she’s reading. She must then enter that fantasy world to save her brother, dealing with the Goblin King and his minions (created by the late, great Jim Henson). One could also say that both movies make a great argument for why reading is good.

Ghostbusters (1984)/Beetlejuice (1988): Two comedy classics involving ghosts. Ghostbusters centers on four men (Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson, and the late Harold Ramis) who manage to make a lucrative business out of capturing ghosts. In lesser hands, Beetlejuice could have been just a Ghostbusters knock-off, but Tim Burton stirs things up with his film by making ghosts the main characters. In that film, a couple (Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis) have recently died and soon enlist the aid of the title character (Michael Keaton) to rid their home of its new owners, an act that they come to regret, as he has a reputation for wrecking havoc among both the living and the dead. Add the fact that both of these movies are hilarious and you have a great double feature.

The Terminator (1984)/Back to the Future (1985): Two time travel stories released in consecutive years. The first, which involves a murderous cyborg (Arnold Schwarzenegger) sent back through time to change history by killing a woman (Linda Hamilton) before she can give birth to the man who will save humanity, was a nerve-jolting thriller, while the second, in which a teenager (Michael J. Fox) accidentally goes back in time thanks to a DeLorean his scientist friend (Christopher Lloyd) has modified, was a comedy. Both films also end up giving nice messages about the importance of believing in yourself and creating your own destiny.

Escape from New York (1981)/Blade Runner (1982): Both of these are science fiction films which show a near future with a dark, apocalyptic outlook that continues to influence the science fiction genre to this day. Escape from New York, which takes place in 1997, involves a criminal (Kurt Russell) being drafted into rescuing the President of the United States (Donald Pleasence) by going into the title city (which is now a maximum security prison), where Air Force One crashed and the president was kidnapped by the dangerous criminals who now inhabit the city. Blade Runner involves a police detective (Harrison Ford) who must go through 2019 Los Angeles to terminate dangerous androids (Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, Joanna Cassidy, and Brion James) who have arrived on Earth (where androids are banned) after violently escaping from an outer space colony (three more years to go as of this writing—let’s see if those colonies come about by then). Another interesting contrast is that Escape contains criticism of police and police actions (one of the characters in the film refers to the U.S. as a fascist state), while Ford’s character in Blade Runner spends much of the movie questioning himself and his actions, especially when he realizes his opponents aren’t as evil as society and his superiors have made them out to be.

Ray (2004)/Walk the Line (2005): Two biopics about music legends. Ray depicts the rise of Ray Charles (a brilliant, Oscar-winning Jamie Foxx) while Walk the Line does the same with music duo Johnny and June Carter Cash (Joaquin Phoenix and a brilliant, Oscar-winning Reese Witherspoon). Both movies do a fine job illustrating the trials and tribulations these artists went through (some of which were of their own making) as they fulfilled their dreams of making music, and thus, ensuring their places in history. Interestingly, both Charles and the Cashes passed away shortly before these films premiered, although both movies received their blessing.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)/Clue (1985): Rocky Horror (which, I must confess, I never really liked, but can understand why many do) is a musical-science fiction-comedy with not-so-subtle nods to Frankenstein, while Clue is a mystery-comedy based on the Parker Brothers board game of the same name. However, both films not only take place in mansions on dark and stormy nights, but both also feature memorable roles for Tim Curry. In Rocky Horror, he plays the doctor who was once described by Us magazine as “a bi-sexual Beetlejuice”, while in Clue, he plays a butler who ends up setting an evening of murder into motion after he invites several people over for dinner. In addition, both movies didn’t get much initial notice when they were released, but today have huge followings as well as midnight showings with audience members performing the action as it plays on screen.

HONORABLE MENTION: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966)/Garfield’s Halloween Adventure (1985): As it’s Halloween, it seems appropriate to mention these two animated specials, which may be the most famous of all Halloween cartoons. In the first, Linus waits for the arrival of the Santa Claus-esque Great Pumpkin, while Charlie Brown ends up getting only rocks while trick-or-treating and Snoopy hunts for the Red Baron. In the second, Garfield enlists his dog sidekick Odie to go trick-or-treating with him (both dress up as pirates) in order to get more candy for himself, only for both to get caught up in a genuine ghost story (involving—what else?—pirates, which today reminds me a little of the setting of John Carpenter’s The Fog). The Garfield special actually bests Great Pumpkin in terms of having moments that make you jump, but both specials have a great deal of heart, making them the perfect Halloween treats for all ages.